Me in that white Aquascutum coat, between Robert and
my mother-in-law, at Manchester airport, leaving
for Canada in 1967. These are a few members
of Robert's extended family, his father
at the back with a cap.
My father’s next posting, after Meherpur, was at Nilfamari in the north, which, as its name implies, would have once been a centre of indigo farming in the heydays of the colonial connection. The house here had a white-washed exterior and was heavily thatched. The thatch was a dark colour, making a contrast with the white exterior of the building. Many years later I saw cottages looking exactly like that in Great Tew and Little Tew in Oxfordshire.
There was a lovely garden attached to the Nilfamari cottage, with many flowering bushes. A gardener was in charge. The garden sported a magnolia grandiflora tree, about which the government gardener attached to the house used to wax eloquent, but as we lived there, I believe, for about nine months only, we missed seeing the actual flowers during our residence there. The grand name stuck to my mind, but I have no memory of seeing the tree in blossom in those days. Many years later I saw the blossoming tree in England itself. There are such trees in the village where we live. One or two houses on Banbury Road, Kidlington, just a few steps from our own house, sport this tree in the front garden, presenting a glorious spectacle for a few days in the spring. Here is a photo taken by Robert at the end of March 2017.
Magnolia grandiflora at a neighbour’s
house in Kidlington
Now when I ruminate on these issues — the striking similarity in appearance between the house where I lived in Nilfamari and the cottages I have seen in Great Tew and Little Tew, and the fact that the expatriates had planted a magnolia grandiflora in their tropical garden so far from home — I realize with what great passion and nostalgia those expatriates remembered their home territory when living and working in northern Bengal, so many miles from their original home. Indigo farmers have such a bad reputation in Bengal that as an expatriate myself, I would like to give them some credit for their attachment to their image of ‘home’.
Though I did not see the famous magnolia grandiflora tree in flower when I lived in the house at Nilfamari, I did see something else there that deserves a separate mention. It was there that I saw a snake for the first time in my life.
There was a yard at the back of the house with a well attached to it, where one could wash oneself or one’s clothes. Of course, the house itself did have a bathroom which we regularly used, where, as in Meherpur, the water was not plumbed in, but had to be fetched from the outside. But that room was particularly dark and because of that not very inviting to children. There were cold days when having a bath there was not much fun at all. On such days, my mother would give my sister and myself a quick scrub and rinse by the well. It was far more enjoyable for us kids to be scrubbed and rinsed directly under the sun. Our clothes were always washed by this well.
One cold but sunny day when we were enjoying our outdoor ablutions, we saw a smallish snake moving about briskly on a branch of the tree very close to the well. There were shrieks, and the domestic staff activated themselves to kill the snake. ‘Nothing to worry about,’ we soon heard, ‘it’s not a poisonous one.’ There was immense relief, but the visual image of the greenish reptile wriggling around the branch decided never to leave me. It is still imprinted on my brain. I am not obsessed by it, but I can still see it if I choose to. I understand that the cells of our body renew themselves every few years. But it is a continuous process, happening all the time. So be it, as long as there is some recognizable continuity between different editions of the same book!
Beyond the cottage in Nilfamari there were rice fields separated by aals or raised earthen ridges, just as at Meherpur. This was the dominant rural landscape in the parts of Bengal in which I lived in my childhood, and the region was prime rice territory.
A vivid memory from our stay in this white-washed thatched cottage is the lighting of the ‘petromax’ by my father’s attendants every evening. It was a daily vespertine ritual enacted in the sitting-room with the utmost solemnity. Once got going, the lamp made a gentle hissing noise and gave off a bluish glow. It was our most posh illumination. Next in rank came the hurricane lantern, which was more portable. We ate by the light of the hurricane lantern at night, as we had done at Meherpur. The humblest light was the little oil-lit kupi, which went back and forth everywhere, and kept journeying between the kitchen and the dining-room. I don’t know how they managed to cook by its single-flame light, but they managed the basic tasks. I think the cooking was kept simple at night. Some cooking had to be done — there was no fridge from which stuff could be taken out and re-heated. And there were certainly no pre-prepared meals to warm up. Without refrigeration, meals had to be prepared from scratch every time a cooked meal was needed, because cooked meals would go off quickly at room temperature. Fish and meat were bought fresh in the market, cooked immediately, and eaten the same day. The fear of food going off was truly potent in my childhood. It was the subject of constant discussion between housewives, cooks, and other kitchen staff.
I have not mentioned candles in these recollections as they were not used for domestic lighting. They were deemed to be too dangerous — they could lead to a conflagration. In my childhood I saw them being used only at the time of Kali Puja, coinciding with the Bengali Diwali, and only outside the main house, such as on balcony railings.
Let me recollect two incidents about the gold churhis, because I associate them with this house in Nilfamari. One is a fairly simple one. Every afternoon I went into the special, fenced front garden where the magnolia tree was, to play with a number of children who came to play with me. One day, as I was playing, one of the attendants came and asked me where my gold bangles were. ‘They are right here, on my wrists, where else,’ I replied, but then, when I looked, they certainly were not there! The attendant said that my mother had asked me to go to the bathroom and check there. With some trepidation I went indoors and did just that, and in the half-light found them lying snugly in the water-mug that was used for pouring water over us at bath-time. I must have slipped them off when soaping myself. That was a relief.
But my next experiment with the bangles was more elaborate, There was a tattered book of general scientific knowledge in the house, and as it was in Bengali, I could access it and make some sense of it. I read in that book that if gold came into contact with mercury, it became discoloured and developed a crack. I already knew that the little dark balls inside a thermometer were mercury. There was a broken thermometer in the house. Little dark balls were clearly visible there. I have no idea why it was being saved — was it because it was thought that it could be repaired? I was too scared to ask and never found out. One afternoon when my mother was having her siesta I crept to the place where the broken thermometer was kept, carefully removed a few of the little dark balls, and pressed them against one of my bangles. That was the first scientific experiment of my life. I sat like that for a few moments, but noticed no change in the bangle. I told myself that the book must have purveyed incorrect information: perhaps nothing really happens to gold when it comes into contact with mercury. Somewhat disappointed, I put the little balls away. I think I must have slipped them back inside the thermometer, though I am no longer absolutely sure about this.
In the afternoon I went to the garden as usual to play with the hordes of kids who literally descended there for the purpose of playing with me. I think the garden was a major attraction for them. The opportunity to play in the SDO sahib’s garden, and with his daughters, was too good to be missed. From time to time I glanced at the bangle, but could not detect any transformation. Then the time drew towards the twilight, when I was supposed to go indoors. As I glanced at the bangle one more time, I saw with some consternation that it had indeed undergone a transformation. The ring of the bangle was broken in one place and the broken edges were darkened. I instantly realized that the book had not lied, after all. After this I had no other way out but to show my mother what had happened. Did I admit that I had done the experiment deliberately, or did I pretend that it had happened somewhat accidentally? I have no clear memory of that. But my mother did not interrogate or scold me. She just took both gold bangles off my wrists and never had any more made either for me or for my sisters until we got married. My long poem in Bengali about this incident, incorporating also some general reflections on bangles, has been very popular. I believe it has been professionally recited and recorded, though I have never had the pleasure of hearing that recording. When e-mail days came along, I even received one or two queries by e-mail, asking me in which collection the poem could be located.
From this incident, and the quiet, un-fussed way in which my mother dealt with it, I learned that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with scientific experiments, but that one had to take care when undertaking them and be prepared for consequences. Perhaps many things I have done in my life have been such experiments!
In Nilfamari we often played a game we called ‘Pu-jhik-jhik’. The name was onomatopoeic. The first syllable was nasalized and prolonged, like a train’s whistle. As the biggest child in that gang, I was usually the engine, and the other children followed me, pretending to be railway carriages and saying ‘jhik-jhik’.
As I have said, we lived in Nilfamari for nine months only, which was why I never saw the magnolia grandiflora in blossom. But there was something else in Nilfamari which was new to me. The village actually sported a cinema-hall, housed in a low white building which we could see against the sky when we went out for walks in the afternoons. The cinema was a great attraction for my father’s attendants, and they often took my sister and me there. We just stood right at the back and watched for a few minutes; we did not have to pay anything. The films were black and white, of course, and mostly about wars. The language spoken was English. Perhaps they were documentaries on the war that was going on or had just ended. The attendants were not bothered by the language. They just wanted to watch the moving pictures, which were self-explanatory.§
After Nilfamari my father was posted to Malda, also in northern Bengal, but not as far in the north as Nilfamari. It was when we were in Malda that India became independent. That was a major event in my childhood.
Unlike Meherpur and Nilfamari, which were very rural, Malda was more like a town. In those days it must have been a smallish town, but it became a much bigger urban centre later. My father was still an SDO or officer in charge of a subdivision. He was not a District Magistrate. The position of a District Magistrate would have been occupied by a person of a more senior rank. Perhaps Malda was not a fully fledged district town yet. Your exact place in the official hierarchy was, of course, of utmost importance in the administration.
The Malda region was famous for its mangoes, and I remember eating many delicious, fleshy and juicy mangoes in those days. They were both tasty and abundant. Presenting a basket of mangoes to somebody was a very common way of saying ‘thank you’. Years later, when I was making a train journey from Bolpur in Birbhum (the station serving Santiniketan) to Siliguri in the north to get to North Bengal University, I was vividly reminded of Malda’s formidable reputation for its mangoes. The train passed through Malda. I did not get off. But the moment the train stopped, vendors besieged the windows with their woven cane trays of mangoes and their attendant cries.
Malda was close to Gourh, the seat of an ancient Bengali kingdom. We went there once, and saw many ruins of that ancient city made with fired clay bricks. As Bengal is on an alluvial plain and does not have any stone, in the past the way to build durably was with fired clay bricks, and Gourh was famous for such brickwork.
In Malda we lived on the upper floor of a two-storeyed house. The house had electric lights, perceived as a great improvement in our living conditions, but we still had no ceiling fans or bathrooms with plumbing. There was an extended roof-terrace where one could sleep under the sky in the summer months. Presumably they were the weeks when the mosquito did not breed. I used to stare at the stars at night and began to wonder where they and us humans all came from. When I looked at the night sky, philosophical questions rumbled in me. I could not connect what I saw with the notion of a Creator.
But as I just said, there was still no plumbed-in water supply or sanitation. The toilets were at the far end of the terrace. Human waste was collected in a municipal cart that came every day at a certain time in the afternoon and sweepers employed by the municipality emptied the big toilet vats at the end of the terrace, creating a mighty stink as the cart was trundled off.
Several incidents stick out in my memory from our Malda days. It was here that my brother, Amit, was born. Like Karabi he was born at home. I now became an established Big Sister. For some reason Karabi never called me Didi or elder sister. Perhaps she did not wish to acknowledge that I was two and a half years her senior! She just called me by my nickname or call-name (daak-naam). That was an infringement of Bengali domestic etiquette, As my mother did not interfere, not having a hang-up about such rules, which was her way of being modern, Karabi continued to call me by my daak-naam. I should point out that though this was a breach of etiquette in the Bengali context, it was exactly what would have happened in a British family, where siblings just use first names when referring to or addressing one another.
When my brother was born, I saw maids or nurses carrying bowls of boiled and sizzling hot water. I knew that this was a way of ridding the water of germs. This vital information was imbibed from our environment. Fighting germs was a major issue of our lives in those days, a mantra, as the British media would now call it.
It is indeed interesting that the two Indian terms that the British media really love nowadays, which they have taken over, made their own, and to which they have added ironic twists, innuendoes of their own, are mantra and guru. One could write yards of cross-cultural, cross-linguistic analysis of this phenomenon. But of course one would need the knowledge of more than one language even to appreciate such a discourse.
There was a long muffled groan, then a baby’s yell. I knew that my mother had given birth to her third child. He was indeed taught to call me Bordi (Eldest Sister), as for a little boy, calling an elder sister seven years his senior by her daak-naam would have been considered most inappropriate even in a progressive family!
In Malda I experienced an earthquake for the first time in my life. From the other side of the street it was scary to watch the two-storeyed house with its top floor veranda swaying gently. It looked as if the wind was rocking it. Of course, much later I understood that this was due to the phenomenon known as plate tectonics — this was, after all, North Bengal, not so far from the foothills of the Himalayas. Like the lightning-flash following a crooked path in the sky, or the dream about the many moons visible in the sky, or indeed the greenish snake moving on a tree-branch above the well, the swaying house is a childhood memory that refuses to go away. Perhaps that’s because such experiences challenge our sense of security, our perceived place in the environment. Actually, it must have been a pretty long tremor, because we had clearly climbed downstairs and crossed the street, and the house was still shaking.
As I have said, it was when we were in Malda that India gained independence from British rule. The first announcement said that Malda had been assigned to Pakistan. As the SDO resident in the town, my father had to raise the Pakistani flag. Then came an announcement that the previous information had been wrong, that the town of Malda had been allocated to India. So the next morning my father had the somewhat unnerving task of taking down the Pakistani flag and raising the Indian one. But during all these operations I never saw the Union Jack. I had no idea what it looked like.
I suppose all these announcements were on the wireless. In those days we did not have a radio set of our own, but of course the news floated in the air as it were. In any case, my father had to be fully aware of all the details: it was part of his job.
The morning when one flag had to be taken down and the other one had to be raised was a morning of great tension. I clearly remember the prevailing mood. People were apprehensive: there might be trouble. Riots, for instance. I still remember the ‘gut anxiety’.
We assembled on the top roof-terrace overlooking the street. My father pulled down the Pakistani flag that had been raised the day before and raised the Indian flag. We peered over the edge of the wall overlooking the street below. I was too small and somebody had to hold me up a bit so that I could see what was going on below. As anticipated, there was indeed some ‘trouble’. We could then see a police jeep arriving. Policemen waving batons dispersed the agitated crowds. We were relieved.
This whole business of why our country had to be divided was not clear to me at all. It was only in Malda that I became aware of ‘Hindus and Muslims’. My father had Muslim colleagues, and their wives came to ‘drink tea’ with my mother, bringing their young daughters with them. I could not see much difference between them and me and my sister — they all spoke Bengali — except that they seemed a bit more wild and unruly, up to all kinds of mischievous tricks! I quietly concluded that they had less discipline at home, but did not link that to any profound difference. Some years later, when my mother felt that I was big enough to understand, she told me that those wives of my father’s Muslim colleagues in Malda had confided to her that they were too scared to visit their own natal families. Why? Just in case a woman might find, when she came back to her husband’s household, that he had taken another wife.
In the past, taking another wife was not exactly illegal for Hindus either. We all knew about the wives of King Dasharath in the Ramayan. But in the community within which I was growing up it had become rare to hear of a man taking another wife while his first wife was still alive. It happened in literature rather than in life. When growing up, I had heard of only one such case from real life. It had happened in the previous generation. A man had married two sisters at the same time. This certainly happened in the past, but by the time I was growing up, it had become a hush-hush subject, as by then bigamy and polygamy had become illegal for Hindus.
In general, visiting the natal family, the ‘baaper barhi’ or ‘father’s house’, was a great treat for married women in my community. They could relax, let go, freed of the usual chores they had to perform in the husband’s extended household. In the extended patriarchal family of her in-laws, a married woman had to perform her ‘duties’. A visit to the natal family was a cherished retreat from that routine, a holiday in which she could be indulged like a little girl again.
A woman’s right to visit her natal family is enshrined in what has become the central religious festival of Bengali Hindus, the Puja or the worship of the Mother Goddess. Anthropologists say that resistance to British colonial rule had something to do with the consolidation of the cult. The Mother could be easily identified with the motherland. The Mother Goddess, Durga, herself visits her parents every year, with her four children, two daughters and two sons. It is this visit which is currently celebrated every year as the main festival of the Bengali Hindu community. Durga, the Mother Goddess, has become very important in Bengali iconography. She has ten arms, signifying power, rides a lion, and is depicted as vanquishing a demon in the shape of a buffalo. She is celebrated as a warrior goddess, well-versed in the martial arts. She is also venerated as a matron with a family, making her annual visit to her own parents. The timing of the festival, which usually falls in the month of October of the Christian calendar, indicates quite clearly that it has morphed from a harvest festival, another feature that has helped in the identification of the mother and the motherland. Without a doubt this festival was the most important religious festival of my growing years. The other important festivals were Holi, a spring festival in which people throw red powder and red water at each other; Kali Puja, which follows on the heels of Durga Puja and pays tribute to the Mother Goddess in her aspect as the Supreme Destroyer, also incorporating the Festival of Lights, known as the Diwali; and very importantly, Saraswati Puja, in honour of the Goddess of learning and the arts. Saraswati and Lakshmi are the two daughters of Durga. Lakshmi is the Goddess of material wealth and prosperity. Many middle-aged women in my community paid diligent respect to Lakshmi, but my mother always claimed that she felt ashamed to ask for material wealth and only wanted the blessing of Saraswati on her children. I have already touched on this earlier in my memories of Meherpur.
In 2010 we toured many displays of Ma Durga, including some in private houses in North Calcutta thanks to our friend Sounak Chacraverti.
This is at the Deshapriya Park puja. Our friends Samrat Sengupta and family were on the organizing committee
Just the other day some of us received by e-mail an interesting image: it showed the Mother Goddess with Hillary Clinton’s face vanquishing a mahishasur or buffalo-demon with Trump’s face. It was pretty hilarious and was presumably designed by a very clever person within our Diaspora. (But as I continue to write this in January 2017, the mahishasur is winning for now.)
In the context of religious worship all these ceremonies in honour of gods and goddesses, worshipped as clay statues and immersed afterwards in pond or river or estuary waters, were of course archetypal pagan rituals. How far did my contemporaries at Oxford, when I came to study there, see me as someone who had been brought up within a so-called ‘pagan’ tradition?
In this connection one incident sticks out in my memory, so let me get it out. It was my very first term at Oxford, the Michaelmas term of 1960. My lodging was at 13 Iffley Road, where I had a fellow lodger who was related to the well-known literary scholar Helen Gardner. He and I often met at breakfast-time and chatted on diverse issues. One morning I made the comment that Roman Catholics were ‘more pagan’ than Protestants. Helen Gardner’s nephew was highly amused by my comment and said that one could not make a comment like that: Roman Catholics were Christian, and Christians could not, by definition, be pagans. For him the dichotomy was absolute. Deep within me, I felt that such a position, when viewed in the broader context of comparative religion, was untenable in the long run. Like ‘Hindus and Muslims’, ‘Jews and Christians’, ‘Christians and pagans’ could not be maintained as a valid classification over a prolonged period. People, I felt, could not be assigned to such mutually exclusive categories and left in such slots for ever. Sooner or later they would have to wake up to the fact that their common humanity was more important. But I did not have enough command of Western-style theological jargon to argue with the young man. Needless to say, humanity is still tormented by such divisions.
So let me go back to Malda, where I became aware of the existence of Muslims as a group with a separate identity from us and where we were when India gained independence from British rule. I think my first memory of the Holi festival is also from this period. We were on the terrace of the first floor, playing with sprays that squirted coloured water. We doused one another. My mother was brought some sherbet to drink, and I heard folks discussing that it had a touch of siddhi in it. I learned much later that this ingredient was ultimately derived from cannabis. Of course, the plant is indigenous to India and its associations there are therefore somewhat different from what they are in the West. Indian ‘holy men’ have had years of experience in experimenting with the development of mind-altering substances with it, creating psychedelic drugs that lift you out of tangible everyday reality and allow you whiffs of the surreal. I have never felt any urge to try these concoctions, so cannot say anything about their effects from personal experience.
Another memory associated with the Malda roof-terrace also has a cross-cultural implication. I have written about this memory in one of my Bengali articles. My sister Karabi and myself had been given a doll which was biggish and distinctive-looking, made to look like a pretty English girl. In those days such an artifact would undoubtedly have been imported from Britain. But by that time the poor doll had reached a critical stage in its life. Its joints were coming undone and the once beautiful image of English girlhood had become very compromised indeed. My sister and I decided that it had reached the end of its life and deserved a funeral. We knew that dead bodies were carried to the cremation grounds with cries of ‘Balo Hari! Hari Bol!’ from the kinsmen of the deceased. We had seen such journeys from our balcony. So my sister and I carried the hapless image of English girlhood, coming unstuck at vulnerable joints, with extremely lusty cries of ‘Balo Hari! Hari Bol!’ Life was now definitely over and the poor lass had to think of God and invoke His name.
After some moments, our mother heard the commotion. She came out and told us off. She said that the dead deserved respect. Even a dead doll did. The way we were behaving was making a mockery of the doll’s demise. It was a sobering thought. We got the message and ceased our funereal clamour and commotion. Death, we understood, deserved lamentation, not celebration.
In the 1940s we were in rapidly changing times, which I am trying to understand to this day. Not being in Calcutta at the time, I have no memories relating to what is known as the Great Calcutta Killing (1946). But as I have said, I do remember the raising of the Indian flag on 15 August 1947.
Interestingly, childhood journeys across longish distances are somewhat blurred in my mind, but at the same time are associated with a degree of anxiety, the anxiety that something might go wrong. If a train stopped at a station, my father would invariably get off to buy a packet of cigarettes or a newspaper. He sometimes failed to return when the guard blew the whistle, then jumped back on the train as it was just beginning to move. I do not know how many times this might have happened for it to have become a source of anxiety in my mind, but it certainly became an obsessive anxiety — this idea that the train might move on, leaving my father behind. I clearly did not know yet about alarm chains and how they could be pulled in an emergency. Associated with this was the fear of losing luggage. If we had to change trains, wait on the platform for the next train, I would sit on my little black metal trunk, very common in those days, with some determination. I was scared that if I did not sit tightly on it all the time, if I got up and walked even a few steps, somebody else might claim it as his or her luggage. My mother tried to assure me that this would not happen, but I was not persuaded. What with a father chasing newspapers and cigarettes, and a mother constantly preoccupied with her second child, I developed an anxiety about travelling, about the train moving on without my father or me losing my little black trunk. I wonder now — surely the coolies must have been around, helping with the luggage. Why was I so neurotically anxious about losing my little black trunk? But anxious I was. I remember that I once did a water colour sketch in a drawing-book which showed a little girl waiting for a train on a railway platform. She was sitting on her trunk. In front of her was a sign which identified the station as Chuadanga. Like Meherpur and Nilfamari, this was allocated to East Pakistan in 1947 and is now in Bangladesh. As I think of the past, I am fascinated by the process of remembering things — how certain details seem determined to hang on to us and haunt us, while others fade away and we are content to let them go.
Thus the river near our home in Meherpur, with kaash flowers on its banks, I do remember as being called Bhairab, last syllable end-stopped, in the masculine gender. I did also call it that in one of my childhood poems. But in a poem written when I was a little older, when I was fourteen, and published in the Lady Brabourne College magazine when I was an Intermediate Arts student there, I consciously changed it to a feminine name, Bhairabi, for my line’s immediate sonic needs. Recently I googled the name out of curiosity, and it is indeed Bhairab — stern and end-stopped. Meherpur, Bhairab, Nadia, Kushtia, Nilfamari, Chuadanga — names from my fractured original homeland that still haunt me.
Sometime in the eighties or nineties of the last century a young man died at Oxford, trying to board a train that was just pulling out of the station. As far as I remember, his ultimate destination was Edinburgh, where he had an interview. As the news was splashed in the Oxford papers, my memory of having seen my father jump on a moving train at least once in my life, or perhaps twice, came back to haunt me with some ferocity. For days I felt utterly devastated, as though I had lost my own son. It still hurts.
I remember one visit to Dhaka (or Dacca as it was written in British-Indian English). My father’s father had built a house there. I must have gone there more than once, but I consciously remember only one childhood visit. Of the journey itself I only remember one detail: crossing the river Padma at night by a steamer. Of the house I have fragments of memories, including the front, the stairs, the rooms packed with books, the inner courtyard, the kitchen entrance adjacent to it.
My paternal grandfather was a school-teacher famous for knowing whole scenes of Shakespeare by heart and for being able to recite them. In the imperial days British civil servants had to learn the language of the area where they were serving. My grandfather gave them lessons. He was a scholar, immersed in his books, and losing his home in Dacca was an absolute tragedy for him. When he came to West Bengal after the Partition of Bengal, he did bring over with him his Complete Works of Shakespeare in three tall, illustrated folio-sized volumes, which survived in my father’s household for many years. I used to love looking at these volumes, at the pictures with the quotations underneath them. One exchange below a picture still haunts me. A character says: ‘I loved you not.’ The person spoken to replies: ‘I was the more deceived.’ But my grandfather did not live long after coming over to the Indian side. He died pretty soon thereafter. The break-up of his country broke him too.
One dominant memory of our visit to Dacca before Independence is that of my cousin Khokon, the eldest son of my Uncle Montu, asking me if I had seen this or that, testing my general knowledge. One of his questions was whether I had ever seen a sheep! He seemed reluctant to accept my testimony that I had indeed seen the beast in question. I think he must have thought that I was a completely urban kid who couldn’t possibly have seen a real sheep!
I must have been to my grandfather’s house in Dacca more than once, but this is the only visit which I remember. When my father was briefly posted at Cox’s Bazaar earlier during the war, my mother stayed with her in-laws in the house in Dacca. I was very small then. Apparently I was taught to pray every night to the powers that be, for my father’s safe return. I have absolutely no memory of this ritual. It is before the dawn of my memories. Cox’s Bazaar on the coast, south of Chittagong, is another location in present-day Bangladesh that I often heard about in my childhood. It was close to the eastern frontier of World War II. Now it is famous as a tourist resort, well known for its beaches.
In the winter of 2011-12 I had an opportunity to go to Dhaka for a few days to attend a couple of conferences. Naturally, I did not wish to miss such an opportunity. My last visit there had been before India had attained independence from British rule, when the two wings of Bengal still belonged to one country. Things had changed so much in the intervening decades. One disturbing shred of memory from that pre-Independence visit, perhaps in 1946, could be said to have a political tinge. I was walking, holding my father’s hand, and saw pillows and torn bed linen on the street. I remember asking my father why such things were lying on the street. I was told that there had been rioting. This was a new kind of information for me. Clashes between different groups of people could be so violent that things belonging to people’s bedrooms could end up lying on the street.
In my visit to Dhaka in 2011-12 I was naturally curious to see if I could visit, or at least view, the front of my paternal grandfather’s house on Ramakrishna Mission Road. Armed with the address, I went with much hope, only to discover that the house had recently passed into the hands of urban property developers, who had pulled the old house down and were building a multi-storey apartment block on the same spot. I believe I saw the remnants of the brick wall that had been around the original house. A tree was growing through the cracks of the brick wall, as frequently happens in the tropics. That was an utterly moving moment for me, and I have written about that moment in one of my Bengali articles.
Another memory of a significant journey undertaken by me in childhood is the memory of visiting the famous holy city of Benares. Benares or Varanasi, also known by the name of Kashi, is not in Bengal but is much further to the west in northern India. To the west of Bengal is the state of Bihar, and to the west of Bihar is what was known as the United Provinces in British times. This region later became the state of Uttar Pradesh. Benares is where my mother spent some time in her childhood after losing her own mother. She was then in the care of the family of her father’s elder brother. Her only brother was with her. Benares is where my mother went to school. Consequently she was fluent in Hindi.
My memories of Benares include bathing in the riverside ghats, with steps leading into the water, the narrow lanes, and little details from the household of my relatives. I imagine the river was not so polluted then, at least not with industrial pollutants. In the house where we stayed, activities in the yard dominated the day. My mother’s aunt — that is to say, her jyethima or her father’s elder brother’s wife — cooked on a portable stove in a corner. The courtyard was overshadowed by large trees, the branches of which drooped down. And guess what — monkeys clung to those branches, surveying the activities of us humans in the courtyard below, chattering and gesticulating. They seemed to have a lot to say to each other about what they could see down below!
In another corner of the yard my mother’s thakurma (father’s mother), who seemed to have chronic asthma, sat inhaling the fumes of datura, much in use in those days to suppress the symptoms of asthma. I understood later that this lady had the reputation of being an astute matron, who decided the crucial details of who would be responsible for what for the upbringing of my mother and her younger brother when my mother’s mother (my didima) died of a post-natal complication while still in her very early twenties.
So my mother and her younger brother were brought up initially by her father’s side of the family at Benares, where her father’s elder brother was a postmaster. Benares was where my mother went to school, where the medium of instruction was Hindi. Naturally, she became fluent in Hindi. After all, she had to do subjects like history and geography in Hindi. She also learned to love the class of Hindi devotional songs known as bhajans. She learned to play the tunes of such songs on the sitar. In my childhood I heard her mention with great affection two of her friends, who were sisters. They were Susheela and Leela Jassra. I believe they were actually of Punjabi descent, but anyway they were my mother’s Hindi-speaking friends from her Benares days. Susheela later went on to marry the well-known artist of Keralan origin, K. G. Subramanyan. Robert and myself have had the pleasure of meeting with him and his wife at Santiniketan, and our elder son Virgil had the opportunity to do art workshops with him when he visited Oxford in an academic capacity.§
If I call Benares the location of a first proper holiday experience for me, a holiday in the residential sense, then the second such experience has to be my visit to Kumardhubi, which in those days was in Bihar. My mother’s only brother, my Uncle Gora was posted there, working in a thriving commercial firm. I must have gone there more than once. It was a very special experience. The area was near the river Barakar, which was just a wisp of a stream in the height of summer, but became a fully flowing river in the rainy season. My uncle and his wife and their daughter Jumu lived in a pretty house where I saw a refrigerator and drank cold water from it for the first time in my life. The countryside around the house had beautiful trees. Fallen leaves covered the ground, and I enjoyed walking over them, making crunch-crunch noises. Of course I wrote a long poem about all my experiences! A short ride away from Kumardhubi we met a couple who were friends of my uncle and aunt and whose daughter eventually became the film actress Sharmila Tagore. My own cousin Jumu, Urbashi Barat, has lived and worked most of her life in Jabbalpur in Madhya Pradesh as a Professor of English and is now retired.§
When, after Malda, my father was posted to Calcutta, we all entered a distinctly new phase of our lives. It was there that I finally ‘went to school’ in a formal sense, at the ripe old age of eight, though I had of course been receiving an extensive and intensive ‘education’ at home from my mother for some years. At Malda I had become a serious reader, ploughing through Krittibas’s Bengali Ramayan and Kashidas’s Bengali Mahabharat through hot sticky afternoons as my mother had her siesta. There was no ceiling fan, and the memory of intense heat enveloping me is still potent. Of course, this was the heat that ripened Malda’s famous mangoes, but at that age I did not make the connection. I just soldiered on through the steaming afternoons, and found the doings of the old heroes and heroines both remarkable and baffling. I could not always follow their thought-processes, why they thought some deeds were very praiseworthy and why they condemned other actions. But thanks to these two books I became familiar with the major names and stories of our tradition.
I also did an enormous amount of arithmetic with my mother in those days. By then I had learnt to accept that there was no difference between 3+5 and 5+3. At Meherpur I used to argue bitterly with my mother about this. Even when she showed me, with real objects, that 3+5 and 5+3 were the same, I maintained that the order in which we did the counting might make a subtle difference. For me addition was not a clear-cut process, such as adding three new pencils to five old pencils. It was a mysterious, enigmatic process, in course of which something might mutate, without us realizing it. The order in which one did the counting, beginning with the number 3, or beginning with the number 5, might make a subtle difference. ‘Look, there’s no difference,’ my mother would say, first counting onwards from 3, then counting onwards from 5, and reaching the same result. But to use the language of the BBC, it was a mantra I was unwilling to accept.
By the time I started formal school, I had done area sums, square roots, decimals, fractions — the lot. How much paper do you need to cover a wall of such and such dimensions, or how much carpet does one need to cover a floor which was so much by so much — and how much would these decorative activities cost — these were all within my remit, though why on earth anybody would want to cover walls with paper or floors with carpets was the lakh-rupee question that remained unanswered. That was not the way we lived, putting paper on our walls and carpets on our floors. I understood that the sahibs lived like that. But such absurd sums, just to strengthen our abilities to calculate, occupied yards and yards of work I did through the sweaty afternoons. The experience put me off ‘for ever’ from the process of calculation itself. I simply hated the process. Rupees, annas, pais (and later, not pais, but pices); pounds, shillings, pence; yards, feet, inches — I did them all in Malda. It saved me re-learning any of these processes when I finally started school formally.
The business of rupees-annas-pais is specially interesting in the context of real life, as pais had long ceased to be legal currency. Twelve pais were supposed to make one anna, but the business was in the realm of the surreal for me, because I never saw a pai in real life. It had been superseded by the pice (paisa in Bengali). Four paisas made an anna, and sixteen annas made a rupee. I remember the old anna: the shape and size of this coin appealed to me. But later, the decimal method of counting money overturned all this and there had to be 100 naya (or new) paisas to the rupee. I have a vague memory of the lowest new decimal unit: they were tiny copper coins. Did anybody sit and count them? A Google search tells me that India introduced her decimalized currency on 1 April 1957. The date explains to me why I remember this entire business as yet another pain in the neck. From four paysas making an anna and sixteen annas making a rupee, I now had to move on to one hundred little coins making a rupee. Add to all this the complication that in Bengali we did not call the rupee a rupee, but a taakaa, and the business of grammar in Hindi meant that the plural of paisa was paise, the question of who could sit down to count a hundred naye paise till it became a taakaa became even more surreal. Soon, even apparently destitute beggars began to refuse the little coins. It was a torment for someone who had begun life with fundamental doubts about the process of counting. I developed a permanent dither about counting change which has persisted and haunted me all my life.
There are two memories I must not leave untouched. One concerns the house of my mother’s relatives on Palit Street. In this scene the wife of my mother’s only brother, who was to be an important auntie in my life, is coming to the household of her ‘in-laws’. It must have been for her bow-bhaat where the bride serves food for the first time in her bridegroom’s family. The house was absolutely crowded with guests, most of whom I could not recognize. Women were putting honey on the lips and ears of the new bride, a ritual that means to say: ‘May everything you say and hear in your new family be as sweet as honey for you!’ I must have been no more than four. Somehow I got separated from my mother and little sister. In utter panic I decided to hide myself behind a door-panel. Soon I could hear that they were looking for me. I had disappeared. Where was I? I did not respond, just stayed where I was, behind the panel of the door. Eventually they found me. I had to tell them how frightened I had felt. They all agreed that I was a shy girl; it was only to be expected that I would feel that way.
The other memory is from Malda. My mother had bought a sitar and a new harmonium. The German harmonium had been sold because my father could not stand travelling on the train with too much luggage, especially any item that needed special care.
At Malda I had formal lessons in ‘Hindustani’ music, to which my mother was particularly attached since her Benares days. An ‘ustad-ji’ came to teach me. If it was too hot, someone sat and fanned us with a hand-fan. The words of the songs were written down by hand in a notebook. I still remember the opening words and tunes of a few of those songs.
When, after our time in Malda, my father was posted to Calcutta, one of the unfortunate things that happened to us early on in the big city was a burglary, in which the harmonium, even though it was not the posh German one I had had in the past, got stolen. It was actually quite a daring robbery. We were on a main road with tram and bus routes, Rasbihari Avenue, next door to a religious centre called the Mahanirban Math. The ‘Trikon’ (Triangular) Park was on the opposite pavement. I think our address was 111A Rasbihari Avenue. We were on the top floor of a building with three storeys, owned by a prominent businessman called Kshirode Ghosh. The burglars came through the front of the apartment block via the balcony, directly facing the road, They had climbed up in full view of the main road, sheltered by the night, of course. As far as I remember, they had not taken anything else or made their way into any of the rooms of the apartment. The doors remained closed and locked from the inside. Had the instrument been left overnight on a low table in the balcony?
The police found the culprits pretty soon; it must have been a local gang known to them. The harmonium was returned to us, though we had to get in touch with the police a few more times to retrieve the little notebook.
It was from this new residence of ours that I started attending school formally at the age of eight. It was the term when schools re-open after the summer recess. But before I get to that, let me not forget a momentous event. It was on the top balcony of this apartment block that I heard the news of Mahatma Gandhi’s death. He was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on 30 January 1948. I was standing on the top balcony with my father. We still didn’t have a radio set of our own, but you couldn’t miss this piece of news. It was everywhere. The atmosphere was sombre, electrically charged. People were gathering in knots in front of shops which had wireless sets. My father had tears in his eyes. I had never seen him crying before in my life of seven and a half years. I realized that something really terrible must have happened.
Those were very trying times. There were serious shortages of food and clothes. I learned the phrase ‘ration shop’. Obviously, our immediate nuclear family was among a lucky set of people, those who could put food on the table. We did not have to miss any meals. After all, my father had a decent enough job in the service of the government. But there were very serious problems all around us. Bengalis were rice-eaters, proud of their rice crops, but in the city rice was in short supply. The poor quality of the rice supplied in the ration shops was constantly being discussed by the grown-ups. The rice was mixed with small stone chips to increase its weight, and these had to be sifted out before cooking the rice, which was a painstaking process. Occasionally our teeth would grate against pieces of stone: a most unpleasant experience, even apart from the potential damage it could do to our teeth. Separating bits of stone from grains of rice became an activity formally recognized by the Bengali language and inevitably acquired a powerful metaphorical resonance. It was foreign rice, and of very poor quality. People constantly muttered: ‘Where on earth does the government get this rice from?’ As far as I can remember, it was the worst grade of rice, imported from Burma, and adulterated with small stone chips. The resentment against this arrangement was intense. It was perceived as an attempt to wean Bengalis away from the consumption of rice as their principal cereal and to persuade them to eat more wheat. Bengalis had to shift their focus from ‘rice and fish’ to ‘roti and dal’. Of course, we did have some dal with our rice in almost every main meal we ate. But apparently that was not enough: we had to go further. Lazy Bengali women had to learn how to knead dough and roll out chapatis every evening. My childhood in Calcutta in the years after 1948 witnessed the most intense discussions and debates about what we should and should not eat. We were told by the Central Government in Delhi that we had to emulate the wheat-eating folks of northern India and the Punjab. For some reason leavened wholewheat bread made by professional bakeries never took off in Calcutta, at least in those days. When I came to live in England I fell in love with wholewheat bread. What a change that was from the white-bread-and-cucumber sandwiches which I had to take for my ‘tiffin’ at school. I ate all the cucumber pieces and the central parts of the bread slices, but I disliked the edges of the white bread slices intensely — they had no flavour and were just chewy. I did my best to get rid of them in the school, so that my mother would not know that I was not eating the bread-edges. One day I forgot to discard them before leaving school and they were still there in my tiffin-box. Before going upstairs I decided to dump them by the gutter in the entrance alleyway, where crows always congregated. I was confident that the birds would soon gobble up the bits and pieces. But that day luck was against me. My mother went out to do some shopping and found the bread-edges lying there. Clearly no crow had come near them that afternoon. She knew of my intense dislike of those edges, so instantly knew that this discarding was my doing. I had to face a solemn sermon on how immoral it was to waste food.
Not wasting food did become a permanent motto of my life. So much so that even years later, when I was a graduate student at my old Oxford college in the 70s, I could not bear to see food being wasted. In the 60s at Oxford, college food was very poor, but in the 70s food from all over the world was pouring into Britain. The world was generously feeding Britain. And the Oxford students were wasting it recklessly. It broke my heart to see good food not wanted by the girls being swept off their plates into a bucket. One lunch-time I could not take it any more and went to have a chat about it with the kitchen and dining-room staff. They assured me that the left-overs in the bucket would not be totally wasted: they would be given to pigs in a near-by farm. Good for the pigs indeed, but not much of a consolation to someone with my background.
To return to what I was saying, yes, those post-Independence years in Calcutta were complicated times. Getting a supply of milk for the family was a troublesome task in the city before dairy farming and pasteurization in the modern style took off. People were used to depending on the ‘goalas’ or ‘keepers of cows’ for their daily supply of milk, which was then boiled, as it was not safe to drink it otherwise. ‘Non potable’, as the French might say. Later on in life when I encountered the notice ‘Eau Non Potable’ on French trains, I thought how sensible that warning was. Milk, in any case, would go off in the tropical climate if not brought to the boil and simmered for a few minutes.
At Rasbihari Avenue a goala would come with his cow to the pavement directly below our apartment block, turn his bucket upside down to show that there was no water in it, then start milking his cow straight into that bucket. The bucket was then brought upstairs to us and the milk doled out to one of our own containers by means of a small measuring mug which held a powa, four of which made a seer. It was also customary for the goala to give his regular customer a little bit of extra milk to show that he was not interested in being mean and cheating his customers. The extra dollop was called phaau.
Even after the pasteurization of milk took off, my mother did not trust that it was always being done professionally. She used to boil the already pasteurized milk, so great was her fear of food poisoning.
All around us in those days, when refrigeration was minimal, and before Gujarat’s ‘Amul butter’ or West Bengal’s ‘Haringhata dairy’ took off, we heard altercations between housewives and cow-keepers. Some housewives had an obsessive fear of being cheated. Likewise, a goala would sometimes voice his acute anxiety about losing his business and vocation altogether. My mother did not side with housewives who were perpetually obsessed about being cheated. She knew very well how tough it was for the poor in the city.Then there was the era of canned Dutch condensed milk. There would be a picture of a girl in traditional Dutch costume on the can. The condensed milk tended to be already heavily sweetened and had to be diluted with boiled water before it was added to tea or given to children. Strictly speaking, I grew up in a fridge-less household. My mother did not have a refrigerator even when I left for Oxford in September 1960.
Bengal was famous for its mustard oil and gaoa ghee, that is to say, ghee made by churning butter from cow’s milk, but in those days in the late forties, Calcutta certainly did not have enough of these things. A little later a cooking medium called Dalda appeared in the market and was much advertised in the papers, especially for deep-frying, but my parents were against it, saying that it was ‘unhealthy’. Later on in life I understood why. Dalda was what modern nutritionists call a trans-fat. It was not so good for our arteries and could contribute to heart attacks.
In the late forties I learned, in a rather spectacular way, how food rots and germs breed in it. I was about nine, I think. I had a classmate who was very attached to me and used to sit next to me. Her name was Himani; we called her Himu for short. On the very last day of one term, she forgot to take her tiffin box back home with her. I felt obliged to take it home myself. But then I myself forgot all about it and left it in my satchel almost the whole of the holiday period, remembering its existence only when the beginning of the next term approached. Perhaps that was four or five weeks after I had taken the tiffin box home. Only then did I say to myself: Good heavens, what if there had been some bits of food left in it? In theory I knew that the food left-overs would have rotted, but I felt that I had to check this out myself. It was a sturdy round box with a fitting lid, made of copper, I think. I eased off the lid and peeked. The food inside must have been remnants of standard Bengali loochis and some vegetable torkari, but now it was a ghastly, dark mess, where large worms were wriggling. I realized that if I wanted to return the box to Himani, it would have to be thoroughly cleaned first. That was a task well beyond my capabilities. Deeply embarrassed, I had to own up to what had happened. I think I must have mumbled to my mother when she was busy with cooking that my friend’s tiffin box was in a messy condition and would have to be washed before I could give it back to her. My mother must have asked me to show it to her man of all work at that time to see what he could do about it.
The person in question was a young man from Orissa, installed by my mother’s full-time helper Kashi for the holiday period while he, Kashi, went back to Orissa for a few weeks to check that everything was OK with his family and their agricultural land. This was a common practice in those days, and I shall talk about Kashi again.
I don’t remember the name of the temporary helper. Most probably he was a nephew of Kashi: that was how many jobs were managed and shared in those days. Jobs were kept within the family. Oriya women did not come to Calcutta for domestic service. They stayed at home and looked after their own families. It was a conservative society. To supplement their family incomes, some of the men did the necessary shunting between their home villages and the big city in the neighbouring state. Whatever his name, the young man took a look at the state of the lunch-box and gave me a very special, wry smile. I have forgotten the guy’s name, but not the expression on his face when he saw the inside of the tiffin box. It could be translated as follows: ‘So now what shall we do, Miss? You know very well that it is beyond your powers to do anything about this. I suppose it will have to be me who will have to tackle this mess. OK then, leave it to me.’
And he scrubbed it clean, though there were still a few residual dark marks, like scratches. I wonder if he used tamarind to scour it — in those days that was the standard way to deal with stubborn stains in our kitchens. Whatever he used, the container was at least respectable enough to be handed back to my classmate with a brief apology about how I had forgotten to look at it in good time and therefore it had been difficult to clean it any better than that.
Himu took it back with her usual little smile and I never heard anything further from her about this business. I always wondered if her family thought that it was too scratched for further use and threw it away. But I didn’t have the courage to ask her about it. As Himu never said anything either, I did not poke her about it. After all, it was she who had forgotten to take the box home with her in the first place. I don’t remember if she had left it inside her desk chamber or outside it. It would have been just as problematic if discovered inside that chamber after the vacation.
The incident perhaps tells us how we related to ordinary material objects in those days. At a slightly later date we would have very probably thrown the messed-up tiffin box away, without attempting to clean it in a laborious way and then returning it. But in that period of time I clearly felt differently. I had picked it up, thinking I would do my friend a good turn by returning it. That’s what a grown-up would do, so I must have told myself. But then the child in me forgot all about it, until it was too late. When I discovered the state in which the tiffin box was, I asked my mother what should be done when she was too busy to assess the situation personally. Cooking was my mother’s major domestic chore. She was a good cook and proud of it. I didn’t have the courage to show her the interior of the box. When she shunted me to her man of all work, I was probably slightly relieved — surely a solution would now be found. He too did not want to escape from the troublesome chore: at a later date he might well have tried to do just that. Or a more mature person like his uncle might have tried to dissuade me from the entire project, saying that it was simply not worth it. I am sure that is what a servant would have done ten years later. But at that time this particular young man wanted to show off his skills. He wanted to impress us. For all I know, he might have been a teenager himself at that time. These incidents speak to us across the years, which is why I am trying to understand the social and psychological implications of these memories.
Paradoxically, or perhaps not so paradoxically after all, but rather, quite typically, we kids tended to be treated one minute as very mature and almost grown up, and the next minute as children who did not understand the ways of adults. I remember the very first ‘class work’ I had to do at school. According to the terminology of those days I was in Class V. It was a history class and the medium of instruction was still Bengali: it hadn’t shifted to English yet, as it would do somewhat arbitrarily from Day 1 of Class VII. We were asked to describe Alexander’s invasion of India. I wrote very diligently and without any factual or linguistic errors. The teacher put down just one curt comment: ‘Why haven’t you drawn a line for your margin?’ I was utterly mortified. This was the first time I learned that one had to leave an inch or so of empty space on the left-hand side of every page when doing any written work. Space had to be left and a straight line had to be drawn with the aid of a ruler. The empty space was called a ‘margin’. This had not been mandatory for me when I did any written work for my mother. To me it looked like a waste of space. Someone explained to me that the space was reserved for the teacher to make brief comments as she read down the page.
Any form of waste, whether of food or of paper, was anathema to me. To buy anything one needed money, and I had none. I had nothing called ‘pocket money’. How to have good nutrition and at the same time avoid both food wastage and food poisoning were key issues throughout my growing years. And they continued to be important issues for me in my adult life.
Growing up in a nominally Hindu family in Calcutta, I was not used to eating beef. My mother never cooked it and did seem to harbour some cultural prejudice against it. Nor, for that matter, did she ever cook pork — it was feared that pigs might not be hygienically reared in India. We did sometimes eat at a Chinese restaurant called Peiping or Peking. For us children it was a treat. Who knows whether their stocks for making soup or gravy were totally free of pork? But the Chinese practice of simmering stocks for a very long time would have eliminated germs. I have no memory of anything being served as ‘quick-fried’ or as a ‘stir-fry’. But did we as kids scrutinize the printed menus much? I think not. Our parents chose for us, and the owners of the restaurant were fully aware of the dietary habits of the different communities, otherwise they could not have operated in the city. There was actually a substantial ‘Chinatown’ in Calcutta, but we never went there. Calcutta did indeed become a city with sophisticated cosmopolitan eateries. It displays no prejudice against those who want to eat meat and fish, unlike some other Indian cities which have developed an aggressive vegetarian culture.
When I first went abroad in September 1960, my father made a special point of assuring me that I had full permission to eat beef and pork. Those things, he reminded me, were part of the European diet and it would be difficult for me to survive in an Oxford college if I did not eat them. He was keen that I should start eating beef in the hotel in Bombay where he and I were staying for a few days until the ship I was going to board, the s.s. Canton of the P & O Company, arrived from the Far East. I was frightened that if at that point I ate something which I had never eaten before in my life, I might develop a gastric problem, not a good idea just before boarding a ship. He assured me that that was not likely to happen, as I was used to eating the flesh of sheep and goats, and cows were very similar mammals. I am trying to point out how he chose a very rational approach to persuade me. I assured him in turn that I would start eating beef as soon as I was on the ship.
Which is exactly what I did. And found, to my great relief, that beef did not cause me any tummy upsets whatsoever and that it did indeed taste very similar to mutton and goat, to which I was accustomed. That made dining in college perfectly acceptable, not traumatic in any way.
The only problem was that in those days meat was cooked in such a basic way in Oxford’s colleges that it had no zing to it. It was cooked without any spices whatsoever, and the thin slices of roast beef, which were extra-thin in those days, also tasted completely unsalted. My mother sent me, via somebody travelling to England, a jar of Indian pickles and advised me to eat my tasteless slices of meat with a spoonful of this. I started taking the jar to the college dining room. Those were days before such condiments were common in England. There was only one shop in Oxford that sold Indian spices and pickles, and it was a delikatessen called Palm’s in the covered market.
When I first met Robert at Oxford, he was a Western-style vegetarian, eating eggs, but not meat or fish. He was like that when we got married and for several years I maintained that kind of cuisine for him, while cooking meat and fish for myself and the children. Western vegetarians have always been great fans of Indian cooking, because spices liven up their diet. Robert’s love of Indian cooking was very genuine. Western-style vegetarians often congregated in the few Indian restaurants that were available in British cities in those days. Oxford, being a university city, sported three. They were actually run by Sylhetis from East Pakistan and much patronized by the student community because one could buy a decent-sized meal which would be much cheaper than an equivalent Western-style dinner.
Gradually, Robert’s diet changed as he thought deeper about things. He came round to eating fish. He won’t normally choose a meat meal if there is a decent alternative, but if there is none, he will not make a fuss about it. He will just eat a small portion of what is on offer, or just concentrate on the vegetables. When it comes to pasta, he will happily cook for all of us a thick, delicious Bolognese sauce with tomato and minced beef. He has been a good cook of fish dishes for some time now. Now that I can’t really cook because of my impaired vision, he is the chef in our kitchen anyway. All I can do now is offer guidance and suggestions.
Much of Indian vegetarianism is not about avoiding cruelty to animals. It tends to be ritualistic — about trying to make a distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ food, a distinction that is arbitrary and unsustainable. Nobody is asking you to sit down and eat poo, but poo does decay and become part of the soil, and nourishes it. Then plants grow there. How can plants be clean and yet the animals that feed on them be classed as unclean? We are all part of nature’s continuum.
Robert’s big test in this respect came in Kashmir, where my brother worked nearly all his working life. Robert and I visited him there together once. One of my brother’s young colleagues insisted that we visit his village home. It was a long, mountainous ride and we were famished when we arrived. We were served a rich meal of some seven or eight dishes, and each and every one of them was made of meat, either chicken or lamb or goat. There was some rich pulao or biriyani to go with them, but there were no vegetable dishes at all, just a few slices of cucumber on a plate. If ever there was a high-protein meal, this was it. And of course it was all the very best Kashmiri haute cuisine, and absolutely delicious. It had been put together especially to impress the boss’s sahib brother-in-law, who happened to be the first white person to visit that remote village. If Robert did not eat it, there was no alternative. But that was not even a feasible option, because the meal had been specially prepared to welcome him as the first white visitor to the village. Refusing it would be unthinkable. It would be an act of utter discourtesy. And Robert did rise to the occasion. Sitting on a carpet on the floor, he did justice to the meal, eating slowly so that the plate did not get too many refills. The banquet had been prepared by the women of the family, but they did not make an appearance. The people who served the food were all men. They kept going inside the house and bringing the items to the front room. I was the only woman there. At the end I was requested by the ladies of the house to go indoors and say hallo to them; they were genuinely curious about the Indian woman who had married a sahib. They therefore wanted to meet me.
There was no ‘factory farming’ in the strict sense when I was growing up in India in the forties and fifties of the last century. I don’t think I heard the phrase in those days. I did know that duck-eggs had to be cooked for a longer time than eggs laid by hens, because ducks tended to forage in dirty places. But there has been a continuity of interest in nutritional matters in my consciousness which has merged with environmental awareness. I have realized for a long time that what we were doing to our environment was not sustainable in the long run and would lead to climate change that would affect us adversely. In a way this was a culmination of my special interest in geography since my school days. I incorporated my awareness of the dangers of climate change and habitat-loss in my first play, written in 1990, and indeed in articles I wrote before that.§
I have vivid memories of what the shortage of clothes was doing to us in Calcutta, and I have used some of those memories in my second play. In Bengal, once famous for its cottons and silks, the textile industry had been left pretty much in tatters when the British left, and synthetics hadn’t yet taken off. Synthetic fibres are in any case not very suitable for the tropical climate, as they do not allow the skin to ‘breathe naturally’. If I remember right, some of the material people were being urged to use was what had actually been commandeered for military purposes during the war that had just ended. Many a time I heard people remark: ‘How on earth can we make clothes to wear out of this stuff? These are military remnants from making parachutes!’
There was, apparently, a ‘black market’ in textiles prevailing in those days. I used to hear the phrase being bandied about all the time. My mother couldn’t afford to have any connection with illegal products because of my father’s job as a government servant.
I clearly remember going with my mother to buy material at a clothes ration shop at the end of our block, so that she could make little frocks for myself and my sister. She sold one of her own gold chains to fund the purchase of a Singer hand sewing machine, so that she could sew at home for herself and her children without incurring tailors’ bills. I loved turning the handle of this machine under my mother’s watchful eye. It was not as terrifying as lowering the gramophone’s playing needle on the 78 r.p.m. records.
I remember one argument she had with my father when he bought some material from somewhere and asked my mother to turn it into little frocks for us. But the material was so old that it started to tear along the folds even as she tried to open the bundle. It may well have been something that had been remaindered from before the war days. My father was too inexperienced to judge such matters.
In those days when we came to live in Calcutta after our time at Malda, my mother was intensely uncomfortable when the family received formal invitations to weddings, bow-bhaats, mukhe-bhaats (‘rice in the mouth’, the ceremony of giving a baby his or her first rice) and similar social occasions. Previously, her social identity had been determined almost entirely by her husband’s job. She was the SDO’s wife, and that was that. Whatever she chose to wear for any social occasion would be deemed good enough. But in Calcutta, the big city, she had numerous relatives, so that her handful of ‘good saris’ would soon become ‘totally known items’ and she could not, as it were, ‘show off’ new additions to her wardrobe. Not that she wanted to do so herself. Personally, she was always indifferent to the glamour of apparel. But she was uncomfortably aware that at certain levels many women tended to judge other females by their wardrobes.
Indeed, those were not ordinary times at all. In reality, they were extremely complicated times. How much of the complex socio-economic and political realities did I grasp as a child? Very little. I knew that our country had been divided. I knew that people had to eat, or else they would die. All I grasped about clothes was that they could be an issue too. People could obviously survive with very few clothes during our steamy summers, but they did need to cover themselves rather better in the weeks of winter, and apparently there were countries in the world where the water became something called ice in the winter, whatever that might be. My father needed his white jacket to look extra-smart in the winter, and likewise many women needed to show off their pretty saris to feel superior to the other ladies.
When I was growing up, all adult Bengali women around me, whether they were Hindus or Muslims or Christians, invariably wore saris. The salwar-kamiz outfit was regarded as the costume of Punjabi ladies. Amongst Bengalis, young girls and teenagers, especially in the Muslim community, sometimes donned this outfit, but adult women invariably wore the sari.
After the devastation of our weaving of cotton and silk, artificial fabrics such as chiffon and georgette and a little later nylon entered the scene. My mother had a few georgette saris in lovely pale colours, to which borders had to be stitched. I used to borrow some of them for wearing in the tableaux vivants in which our teacher of English, Mrs Bijoli Biswas, specialized. The saris had to be draped in a special way, then pinned, so that we could pretend we were Greek or Roman women. We certainly looked very theatrical and picturesque.
But these shows happened a little later, from 1950 onwards. Before we get there, let me remember a little more the period preceding that. It was when I was living in the Rasbihari Avenue apartment in the late forties that I learned some of the grim realities of life around us. In the early part of this period lingering communal tensions were signalled by siren calls, when we would have to take shelter under our raised wooden beds. We were told that we might be hit by bombs. When the siren rang again, giving us the ‘All Clear’ signal, we could come out. But were these bomb scares really about communal tensions, or mixed with some fears about the continuation of the war? Were they connected in some way to the aftermath of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi? After all, he had been killed by a sectarian extremist.
It was in Rasbihari Avenue that I finally heard about the atom bomb and saw a new, forbidding face of poverty, disease, and disability. I heard about a devastating illness called leukaemia. Refugees hadn’t yet started coming in large numbers from East Pakistan. That would happen after 1950. A beggar came regularly, walking with a stick, asking us to give him two annas. He had only one good leg; the other leg had been amputated below the knee. From our balcony we always threw him the coins he desired, and he went away, apparently satisfied. But I did realize that this could never be a desirable life for anybody. Had this man had leprosy in the past? Is that how he had lost one leg? I am not sure. He had no open wounds or sores, so if he had had it, he must have been cured. But terrifying existential questions began to rumble in my little mind from this time onward. I began to ask myself if this insecurity was an essential part of our existence. And for some reason I began to feel annoyed with the British rulers who had just departed. Governments had to look after the people they governed, did they not? Why had the British quietly, conveniently slipped away, leaving us with this mess? As I gathered some years later, a missionary lady of Albanian origin had started to work in Calcutta for some years, but when growing up there, I never heard of any religious lady of European origin called Teresa.
The pavements on the Rasbihari Avenue were made of large concrete slabs. They were kept reasonably clean in those days. In the mornings they were hosed down with jets of water by the municipal bhistis or water-carriers. This made the atmosphere cool as well. Sadly, at some point this wonderful practice ceased. Perhaps there was simply not enough water to do it, as the city just grew and grew.
In the late afternoons we played hop-scotch on the pavement, after marking it with chalk. One of the children from a flat in the house next door was called Robi. He used to wear khaki shorts and was a very friendly lad — unlike an older girl in another flat in the same house. ‘What caste are you?’ — she asked me when we first met. I explained that I was mixed — my father was a brahmin and my mother a vaidya. She expressed satisfaction, then said with a snigger, ‘The folks downstairs are baniyas.’ That is to say, they belonged to the caste of traders, shopkeepers, moneylenders. Frankly, I couldn’t give a damn about anybody’s caste. I didn’t care about caste. My parents never spoke about castes. I knew I was the product of a cross-caste alliance. It was not until I came to live in Calcutta that caste even entered the conversations around us. I discovered that it did matter to some people there.
We had to wash our hands when we came home after touching the pavement. Maybe another day the one-legged beggar came hopping over the same slabs. My parents never subscribed to the notion that diseases could be caused by the sins of our past lives. With so many diseases on the rampage in our environment, that clearly would have been an unsustainable hypothesis, making us a special nation of sinners. But roughly at the age of eight I began to realize that existence was extremely messy and precarious, and that the grown-ups had really no adequate answers to our existential questions.
It must have been in 1959 or 1960, when we were living in a ground-floor apartment in Hungerford Street, close to Victoria Park, that a man who worked for my mother as a cook’s assistant developed a sore which worried her very much. She asked my father to take a look at it. He did, and suspected that it was the beginning of what might develop into leprosy. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I’ll write a chit for you, so that you can have the right treatment for this in a clinic.’ And he did. The man received treatment, was cured, and went back to his own village. I felt furious with society for inventing unsustainable hypotheses about our sins, of this life or of previous lives, or about God’s wrath upon us mortals, which might cause such terrifying diseases. He, after all, was supposed to have created both us and the disease in question. Leprosy was a disease which had churned up thinking men and women in medieval Europe as well. Europeans had at least progressed from going on and on about men’s sins or God’s wrath to a science-based understanding of diseases. Why had we fallen behind? Why were we stuck to an old groove? Some of this Angst is definitely reflected in poems I wrote in the fifties, before I left for Oxford.
And of course it wasn’t as if things were immeasurably better for people in the imperial homeland, where citizens had the advantage of Christianity, which was supposed to raise your status as human beings. No, not at all. As somebody who had to study English Literature and British history from her teenage years, I was fully aware that God had made no special provisions for those of His children who were supposed to be His favourites. Just study Shakespeare to find out how potent the scourges of poverty and disease were in his time. The one-legged beggar who wanted two annas was right out of Shakespeare.
After my mother-in-law died, I saw a group photograph which was in her collection, showing children as they were when she was growing up in Yorkshire. The children looked lean and thin, clearly undernourished, and some in the front row had no shoes or socks on their feet. This was not in the tropics, but many latitudes further north, in cold, clammy Yorkshire. Clearly, the sweetness drained from the honey-drizzling Empire had not touched those kids either.